Was That A Gold Claude I Saw?
by Rob Graham (updated 4/10/00)
Much debate has been made over the possibility of golden Mitsubishi Type 96 Carrier fighters (Allied code name Claude) in Japanís Imperial Naval Air Force.  There are documented claims of witnessís accounts of "Gendaís Circus" which allegedly flew golden A5Ms, and that there is a lack of evidence showing the A5M was unprotected NMF.  However, while the debate is spirited, it is still very hard to know what is the case.  Here are some known facts:
There is one known color slide of an A5M4 in flight.
 
No A5M relics are known to exist that can prove or disprove the gold finish.
 
Not ALL A5Ms were finished in a way that could have had the gold finish.
There are eyewitness accounts which have been related by older generations that claim to have seen "golden" aircraft.
A passage in the book of the time indicates Mitsubishi used clear lacquer coats to ensure perfectly smooth aircraft finishes on the Asahi Shimbun newspaper's "Kamikaze" aircraft.
 
These five facts stand as testimony to the viewpoints in this study.   
 
Viewpoint I: The Claude had a golden colored finish
 
There is one known color slide of an A5M4 in flight.
David Aiken, a well known researcher in Japanese aviation and a noted historian on the attack on Pearl Harbor, has a color slide of Hokoku 278 A5M4 (tail code 9-158), and it certainly is a gold color.  If scanned and the color balance and a number of other settings are shifted, it has a definite golden color to it.  Some folks have questioned the authenticity of the slide, some have rejected it as a colorized slide, and some others have accepted it as proof.   The slide is a copy of an old shot, it doesnít have the telltale evidence of many of the old retouched photos (color bleeding, etc), and the Hokoku numbers are not retouched.  Parts of the plane (propeller and engine crankcase, maybe the drop tank) appear silver, so itís not just a matter of a yellowed slide.
 
 
On 1/3/2000, Osamu Tagaya emailed Jim Lansdale a note regarding his father's account of the golden Claudes. Jim Lansdale forwarded this information for inclusion:
"Let me give you an update on my father's comments. I had asked him to sharpen his memory of the event and delve into the matter for me when I called him at Christmas, gave him a week to chew on it and got the low down from him when I called to wish my parents a Happy New Year this past Saturday. I should add that my father just turned 79, but is in fine physical health (knock on wood) and his mind and speech are as clear as ever, so I don't think we need to build in any additional margin of error to his comments other than the normal allowances one needs to make for the fallabilities of any human memory.
"First, however, a bit of background. As I'm sure you are aware, Bunrindo's Famous Aircraft of the World No. 27 (March 1991) on the Type 96 Carrier Fighter states, at p. 67 under "Type 96 Kansen Camouflage and Markings" the following: "actually, the overall silver dope finish was the only basic finish which the Type 96 Kansen had, the brown/green "kumogata" finish seen on aircraft of the 12--15 Ku during the early years of the China Incident being no more than a temporary scheme. The procedure adopted in 1939 of applying a coat of surface preservative ("nisu") over the silver dope finish on carrier-based aircraft as an anti-corrosion measure did cause considerable change in the surface color, and thus, technically should be distinguished. Almost all Mark 4 Kansen (i.e. A5M4) were in this latter finish." FAOW No. 27 was put together by Shigeru Nohara, but much of the actual historical material was provided by his historian/researcher partner, Kazuhiko Osuo. Again, no primary source for this statement is given, but it does provide another case of this phenomenon being cited aside from the Izawa/Rikyu Watanabe line of inquiry.
"Now, for my father's comments. You will see from them that we appear to have evidence that the adoption of this "nisu" overcoat procedure actually predated Nohara/Osuo's cited 1939 date by quite a margin. According to my father, Yoshio Tagaya, the air show in question took place on Saturday, June 5, 1937 at Haneda Airport, Tokyo from 8:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. In case you are amazed or incredulous at his detailed recall, I assure you it is not based solely on memory. It is backed up by statements contained in the 50th Anniversary Graduation of the "Rokuju-Kai" of Furitsu Dai-Ichi Chugakko publication, privately printed on October 31, 1988 and distributed to members. "Rokuju-Kai" ("Association 60") is the class association for my father's graduating class (the 60th) from the school in question, usually referred to in abbreviation as "Furitsu Itchu". (Direct translation would be "Tokyo Municipal Middle School No. 1". This happens to be the same school attended by Jun-Ichi Sasai, Saburo Sakai's buntaicho in Tainan Kokutai, before he went on to the Naval Academy at Eta Jima. At p. 251, the English version of Hata & Izawa's Navy Aces and Fighter Units book gives the translation as "Tokyo Municipal High School No. 1". We are both talking about the same school, but some explanation is in order. A direct translation of "Chugakko" would be "Middle School", but I should point out that the pre-1945 Japanese education system was modeled after the German gymnasium system. After the war, under the U.S. occupation, the education system was restructured along American lines. "Middle School" under the old system equates to "High School" in the American system. Sasai was born in 1918. My father was born at the end of 1920.
"He does not remember Sasai from school personally, but thinks Sasai may have been classmates with his elder brother who attended the same school.
"Under the postwar restructuring, Furitsu Itchu was renamed Hibiya Koto Gakko (or Hibiya Koko for short) (i.e. Hibiya High School) and is still very much in existence today. Anyway, my father remembers the day as being overcast (not heavy dark clouds, but a high overcast). If his memory is accurate, we can probably rule out "sunshine reflecting on metal" as a possible answer. He recalls the Claudes came over shortly after lunch. There were three of them (i.e. a shotai). They made a dramatic appearance, roaring in over the hangar line at low altitude and proceeding to do aerobatics above the spectators. He emphasizes that the color was not a thick gold color like you see on chocolate wrappers. It was a faint golden-yellowish tone over an otherwise "normal" silver-gray metallic finish. He likens it to something known as "alumite", an aluminum that has a distinct golden yellow tinge to it, I assume from being treated with some kind of non-toxic varnish preservative compound. In Japan, among other things, it was used to make children's school lunch boxes until well into the 60s. Any Japanese in their 40s or older would instantly know what one was referring to. (The younger ones, maybe not, since everything became plastic thereafter.) I am somewhat at a loss, however, to give a similar example in American popular culture which would be equally intuitive for Americans. Anyway, my father says that the Claudes made a big impression, not only on him, but on all his classmates as well. He says a lot of them still talk about it when they have class reunions.
"We know that the skirmish with Chinese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge on the outskirts of Beijing (Peking) which was the trigger for the Sino-Japanese War took place on July 7, 1937. That was a month AFTER the air show at Haneda. So we appear to be talking about pre-China War Mark 1 Kansen (A5M1) already appearing in the varnish coated finish."
Further, in support of the possibility of a lacquer clear coat, Jim Lansdale shared with me Stef Karver's email of 15 January 2000, which contained a passage from The Aeroplane (April 14, 1937, p. 439), which said:
 
"The exterior finish of the machine ("Kamikaze" civilian version of Ki-15 built by Mitsubishi) appears to be very good indeed. The flush-riveting of both the wing and the fuselage is some of the finest we have ever seen. The whole surface has been covered with many layers of clear dope so that not the slightest inequality can be felt."
 
While this passage has nothing to do with the Claude, it is interesting to note that the first Claudes and the Kamikaze were built by Mitsubishi at almost the same time (1935-1936), using the same technology and techniques of manufacture available, (according to Francillon's Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War) by Mitsubishi Jukogyo KK at Nagoya. The main differences, of course, are that the Claude was a naval fighter, while the Kamikaze was a civilian newspaper's courier plane.
Viewpoint II: There is no substantial evidence the Claude had a golden colored finish
Fact: No A5M relics exist that can prove or disprove the gold finish.
Jim Lansdale, renowned aviation historian, has pointed out that no A5M relics are known to exist in any collection.  There are some derelict hulks, but the finish is certainly gone by now.  He contends that without proof or reasonable evidence, we have to say we donít know.  He also points out that we canít tell the presence of a clear coat by looking at a photo.
 
Viewpoint III: Some Claudes may have had a golden colored finish, but some did not
Fact: Not all A5Ms were finished in a way that could have had the gold finish.
FranÁois Weill has summed the three different schemes he has determined:
One NMF finish concerning all planes from the first operational types, except those that were camouflaged, is definitely an NMF finish because the different shades of metal following the panels are clearly discernible. This applies to A5M1 Model 1, A5M2 Model 2-1 early and late, A5M2 Model 2-2 both early and late (these versions being exactly similar in external shape to the Model 4's).
A camouflage finish of Kumogata (cloud style) aspect of dark green and brown on the upper surface, the under surface remaining NMF (applies to Model 1 and Model 2-1 both early and late).
One finish applies only to Model 4: This one looks like a metallic finish of high gloss aspect when new (the panels are all of the same shade). From the B&W documents, it is impossible to tell whether it was a silver paint application or any other metallic color.
Some folks think the A5Ms were camouflaged on their undersides, although they could have had NMF. 
Were any A5Ms gold or not?
This is still open, and the facts (or lack of) feed the debate.  It is known that the Japanese did not use anodized skin on their aircraft, and common sense prevails to state the aircraft needed to be protected from salt air, as was the case on aircraft carriers.  However, just because this was needed does not prove that a clear lacquer was used; Alclad (almost like galvanizing) skin was available. 
The possibility of a thick lacquer finish to make the plane as smooth as possible for aerodynamic efficiency seems certainly plausible.
The debate could continue for a long time, but the best answer will likely come from old records from Mitsubishi.  Did Mitsubishi apply a coat of lacquer to the Claude, or was the finish applied to the Kamikaze an Asahi-Shimbun exclusive?  Did the Japanese Navy have a contractual directive that stated how the Claude were to be delivered, and if so (this would be VERY likely), where might we find a copy?  Until more evidence has been uncovered, we shall remain guessing and building our models how we choose!
 
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